Writing Picture Books

As conference goers file into my picture book session, I have a quote by Mem Fox on the screen: “Books for young children are usually short. Young children themselves are usually short. This leads to an assumption that children have small brains and that writing for them is easy. The reverse is true.”

If you’ve tried writing picture books, you know what Mem says is true!

And if you’ve studied anything about picture books, you’re probably also aware of these bits of information:

  • Published picture books are usually 32 pages long (that’s including all the pages, not just the ones telling the story), due to the physical aspects of the publication process. When they’re not 32 pages, they’re usually in increments of eight, such as 40, 48, etc. Those numbers don’t mean too much to me as I write, but when I revise, especially my rhyming texts like my dinobooks and Monsters on Machines, I think of my manuscript placed into 14 double-spreads (two pages facing each other).
  • Most editors will tell you to keep your words under 1000 (or much less). My manuscripts range from about 250 to 600.
  • Pictures tell the story, too. If you’re not an author/illustrator, leave room for the illustrator. There’s no need to describe every physical detail. I often eliminate many words and phrases depicting items that will be shown in the illustrations. Once a manuscript has been accepted for publication, it will be turned over to the illustrator. At that point, it becomes the illustrator’s book, too. You don’t select the illustrator, and you almost never include notes about what should be in the pictures.
  • Picture books are meant to be read aloud. You’re not writing for beginning readers. You’re writing for people who will be reading the text to young children. When I did a library presentation once, a librarian said, “At our house, your books were never ‘behind the couch’ books.” When I asked her what she meant, she said they never got tired of reading my books, but whenever they did get tired of reading the same book over and over, they would reach their arms up and back and drop the book behind the couch. She said it would take her kids weeks to find the books again. Yes, you’re writing picture books for children, but you also need to consider the people reading to those kids.
  • Illustrators make dummies of books, putting together the artwork and text to see how it will best fit together. Making a dummy (I wish I’d do it more often) will give you all kinds of information. It’s helped me see where I don’t have enough variety for the illustrator, where I’ve been redundant, and where I need to add something. You can create your own type of dummy in many ways, either making books of various sizes by cutting and pasting your manuscript text and doodling possible illustrations, or create dummies with several spreads on each sheet of paper, or just thumbnail pictures and partial text to see many dummy pages on one sheet. What matters here is what works best for you, because you’re not sending it in. It’s just for your own use, which means those stick figures you tend to hide from others can finally have their special place to shine!

So, what else does a picture book need?  Here’s a little list:

A good picture book has:

  • Characters we care about
  • Problems solved by characters
  • Joy and Heart moment(s)
  • A unique take on a universal theme
  • No preaching or teaching
  • Unique and surprising language
  • The right words in the right places
  • The 3 R’s for youngest: Rhyme, rhythm, repetition

…And kids begging “More! More! More!”

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